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AN AIRPORT LAYOVER DOESN’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO BE A WASTE OF TIME

SHARE AN AIRPORT LAYOVER DOESN’T NECESSARILY HAVE TO BE A WASTE OF TIME

It's estimated that the average executive spends 29 days per year on business travel. It's also estimated that he or she spends a great deal of that time waiting at airports.

In fact, the average traveler spends 21 days a year in transit." Air traffic delays, overbookings, mechanical malfunctions and, yes, even weather, have combined to create long, boring waits for many passengers at domestic and international airports.But now much of the boredom of waiting is slowly but surely changing for the better. A number of airlines are working to minimize that waiting time, and, when it does occur, to make it a pleasant, if not sometimes a rewarding experience. The airlines are not alone. A number of airports and local communities are also trying to make layovers more manageable - if not enjoyable. There are, thankfully, a number of airports worth getting stuck in.

In the very recent past, airport food was nothing short of pedestrian (at best), airport shopping was limited to items you would never really purchase unless you were literally trapped inside an airport, and folks who needed to sleep had to perfect the painful art of doing so in the upright position. An entire generation of poorly fed, overtired and impatient travelers now expect nothing more than abuse during airport layovers.

But now, at a growing number of airports, you can shop for things you actually want (or need), eat food that's actually good (as well as nutritious), be entertained, take a shower and even sleep in a real bed. You can have a sauna, exercise, buy a rare book; you can use a fully operating temporary office, complete with secretary, fax machines and personal computers.

In short, many airports are trying to become a practical extension of your daily life instead of a hindrance to it.

You can eat very well in one of the oyster bars at Logan International airport in Boston. Fresh crab and salmon are always on the menu at the San Francisco airport restaurants. At Honolulu International, you can rent a bed at the Shower Tree for $3 per hour. An eight-hour package deal gives you both bed and shower for $18. And, for fast food freaks, in the basement of the Frankfurt airport, there's even a McDonalds.

At Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, check out the Renaissance Book Shop on the concourse level. The bookstore sells both new, used and rare books - and it is exceptionally well-stocked. (Many travelers who have visited the store during layovers now call it frequently for hard-to-find tomes).

There are dozens of stores at Denver's Stapleton Airport. And at St. Louis' Lambert Field, there's a child's nursery on each of the four concourses. Another find at Stapleton: a new service for stuck travelers lets golfers practice their wings and tee off while waiting.

But most American airports aren't worth any extra time. Washington National is poorly designed, but it's location is excellent, especially if you have a few hours. It's only 20 minutes by the city's Metrorail subway (or shorter by taxi) to most of the major monuments and museums. If you stay at Washington National, you're making a big mistake.

The same is true for New York's La Guardia airport. Again, a short cab ride will get you to the Water's Edge, a great restaurant at the East River Yacht Club in Long Island City. (Eating Wellfleet Oysters and Caviar with a panoramic view of Manhattan's skyline is infinitely more desirable than watching a departures screen).

Some travelers use their airport layover periods in other, possibly more constructive ways. A number of airline passengers landing at JFK and connecting to or from international flights make use of the airport's full-time dental facilities. You can find the airport dentist in Room 2311 in the International Arrivals building. (At Germany's Frankfurt airport, an excellent full-time dental clinic is available).

If you're ever stuck at the Dallas-Fort Worth or Phoenix airports, check out Air Vita, a chain of airport fitness centers. For $15 a visit, you can work out with weights, enjoy a sauna or a Jacuzzi. The centers also feature private sleeping rooms. Some airports around the world look and feel as if they were designed by a conspiracy of sadistic labyrinth-lovers. Not Amsterdam's Schipol. It is easily one of Europe's most negotiable airports. In the UK, duty free shops at airports are under-utilized. One recent survey showed that while the typical airport passenger spends more than an hour in the airport, less than seven percent of his time is spent browsing in shops.

But in Amsterdam and Paris, the airport shops are jammed with buyers eager for duty-free bargains. And at Paris' Charles De Gaulle airport, look for one of the better delicatessens anywhere. (A word of caution: if you're buying any fish or meat or fruit, be sure to ask if it has been approved for travel to the U.S. Many items sold at the delicatessen are not approved by the U.S.D.A. and might be confiscated upon your arrival back in the U.S.)

You can find one of Europe's most complete shopping centers at the Frankfurt-Main airport. The 100-shop complex opens early and closes late, the stores selling everything from smoked salmon to stuffed toy bears. There are 30 restaurants, two supermarkets, antique and modern art stores, Harrods, a pharmacy, dry cleaner, locksmith and shoemaker. (There's even a pornographic bookstore.)

Other statistics are equally overwhelming - there are four movie theaters, a discotheque, and the biggest airport medical clinic in the world (three doctors and a staff of 50). Maybe that's why more than 4,000 people - none of whom have any travel plans - flock to the airport each day, just to visit.

If you get tired, there are great hotels within the airport perimeter, including the Sheraton. The rooms can be expensive, but there are a number of good restaurants, CNN in the rooms, and an updated flight schedule for all airlines posted in the lobby. And the best news. The walk from your room to the check-in desk for your flight at the airport, including elevator ride, can take less than seven minutes. I know, I timed it.

(c) 1989, Los Angeles Times. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate